Fahed Halabi’s previous solo exhibition, held shortly before he left Israel for Hamburg, was titled “Yallah Bye.” Now, six years later, he’s showing “One More Round,” whose paintings center on construction work, a theme that has preoccupied this artist – born in Majdal Shams on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in 1970 – throughout his career.
The 11 paintings in the new exhibition, at Tel Aviv’s RawArt Gallery, portray construction sites. The painter’s gaze is focused on material surfaces of concrete, bricks, planks, stone and wood textures, grids and steel rods. The paintings are devoid of any human presence. The construction site is portrayed as a syntax of materials and surfaces, like brown and gray wallpaper against the background of a turquoise sky.
One painting depicts a sensual encounter between a vertical wooden beam and a concrete wall against an azure background, like a visual confrontation between colors, materials and surfaces (“Untitled,” 2010). A construction worker’s white helmet lying on the ground alludes to the frequency of death at building sites, where life is cheap (“Untitled,” 2010). Gray sidewalk bricks are piled diagonally on sand next to bricks that have been placed lengthwise, like an unfinished mosaic whose parts don’t fit together (“Untitled,” 2016). An orange crane juts out above treetops like a giraffe’s neck (“Crane,” 2016).
Already in 2006, in a video titled “To You With Love,” Halabi filmed himself as a construction worker, wearing a belt with tools of the trade dangling from it, and doing a belly dance, hips rotating as he twirls a hammer. Three years later, he showed the video “Shenkin Melchet” in a group exhibition of Palestinian art titled “Men in the Sun,” at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. The camera focuses on the artist’s hand, an ars poetica image from the history of art that acts as evidence of the one-time quality of the artist’s work. In “Shenkin Melchet” a hand holds a plastic pipe through which cement is poured onto the roof of a construction site in the center of Tel Aviv (the title refers to two trendy streets in the city). The gyrations of the pipe recall a dance or the action painting of Jackson Pollock in his famous drip paintings.
In the same year, Halabi and another Golan Heights-born artist, Ala Farhat, made “Working Day,” a video that depicts the construction of a synagogue for Georgian Israelis in Ashdod. The camera follows the construction of the outlandish, artificial building (Corinthian columns in the heart of a neighborhood rife with plastic window blinds), counterpoising it to the sculptor-like actions of the builders – stonecutting, mixing materials with water, polishing – and at the same time documents their dialogue, which reveals a bitter class consciousness and becomes an appalling allegory for the condition of the Palestinians. One of the workers tells a story about “the most amazing death of all,” about a man who was carrying his brother’s body and was shot himself.
Along with the works related to construction, Halabi also made “Tefillin,” a video in which he accedes to the importuning of Chabad activists on the street, puts on a yarmulke and phylacteries and recites a Jewish blessing as an indiscriminate joiner. Halabi also painted a series of likenesses of MKs and cabinet ministers in a style of exaggerated officiousness, alluding both to the portraits of leaders in regimes that enforce veneration of the government and to paintings of passion that transform passion itself into a caricature.
In most of the works, Halabi seemingly assumes the identity of the “suspect.” The irony derives from excessive interiorizing of the imagined collectivity - the embodiment of the fantasy of the master, speaking from the position of one who has submitted completely to being the “image of the artist in Israeli art,” the subject of propaganda. Still, despite the supposed submission, Halabi’s works tend to hurl the racist stereotypes of Zionism in the viewer’s face, alongside an “inappropriate” sexual approach such as that harbored by unauthorized subjects (an Arab man who desires a female right-wing MK) and aimed at improper objects (a construction worker as a sexual object). Halabi’s works speak from the place of the “minority” who observes sarcastically the fine ideologies which are blind to the fact that he is the one who is realizing them in practice – with his body, his youth, his contract work – and the realization is implemented in full, over the top.
In the present exhibition the rage appears to have given way to a reflective posture. The worker’s vantage point is not recruited in order to generate a bitter laugh at the master’s world alone, and is not confined to the status of the Arab in Jewish-Israeli society: It has taken on the character of painting about painting.
On the brink of abstraction
Halabi paints segments of landscapes from construction sites. Without workers and contractors, without the battle over ownership of the land and over building permits, over the ethnic origin of the builders, without workers who fall to their death from the scaffolding, without a real-estate bubble, indeed without any specific context and seemingly without any political dimension. He focuses on surfaces and textures, on coloration and composition, on a hyper-realistic act of painting that reaches the brink of the geometrical abstract.
“The method of painting I apply in this series not only lacks the excitement of expressionistic gestures, but it also excludes the human factor – a basic stimulator of emotional identification,” Halabi writes in a text that accompanies the exhibition. “It’s as if these paintings are fragments that exist independently and separately from the person that created them, and that have the power to represent themselves. To conclude, I was trying to create a parallel between the value of work in two different fields: art, and construction work.”
Halabi has forgone the depthless poster dimension that marked his paintings and also the caricature-like effect that was dominant in his earlier works. In their place come meticulousness and sensitivity that transform construction site elements into “landscape.” “It is an attempt to confront the aesthetic dimensions of a place which seems to be lacking any sense of aesthetics,” the artist writes.
The exhibition also includes two video works. In one, the camera is attached to a cement mixer, so that the reality photographed rotates on its axis, and through it we view the world from the point of view of the globe. The second video shows the artist (the only human figure in the entire exhibition) sitting and petting his dog while speaking to it in three intermixed languages: Hebrew, German and Arabic. This seemingly light work encapsulates the artist’s occupation with the mechanism of obedience to a covert imperative, with the mechanisms of erotic and political activation. Is the obedient dog, which responds to commands in three languages, a metaphor for the artist who is trying to bridge the gaps in the societies he lives in? Is Halabi showing us his biographical transition and the resulting confusion it wrought, as though to say, “I don’t know what language to speak”?
Like the forgoing of the saliently political thrust of the earlier paintings in favor of a formalist dimension, the video, too, lacks the sting of his previous works. It has given way to sad humor along the lines of “an old dog with a new trick.”